Disciplinary Divides in the Study of Wars, Terrorism, and Social Movements

By Susan Olzak

If a gap exists between studies on civil war/terrorism and contentious politics/social movements, it may be at least partially due to the segregation of discipline boundaries. Sociologists are less likely than other disciplines to analyze civil war or terrorism, but when they do, they seldom engage debates from other disciplines studying these topics. Moreover, even though many political scientists routinely study civil war and insurgencies, they rarely adopt social movement perspectives to study these topics (see essays by Goldstone and Beck posted earlier).

In examining this question empirically, I found a growing disciplinary disparity in the amount attention devoted to either “war” or “civil war.” As the graph below shows, counting articles listed on Jstor from three journals in Political Science (APSR, AJPS, and JCR) and Sociology (ASR, AJS, and SF) from 1990 through 2012, I found that not only do political science journal publish more articles on this topic, but this gap is increasing.


While this graph uses just one (arguably simplistic) indicator of attention to these topics, the evidence is consistent with my claim that sociologists are not exactly rushing in to study these topics. To judge whether these journals were representative, I compared the graph above with an earlier analysis I did in 2011 counting the annual number of articles with (only) the word “war” in the title for 100 general interest journals in each discipline. The results were strikingly similar: over the 1990-2009 period, I found that, compared to political science journals, sociology journals published an average of one-third as many articles on war and this fraction got even smaller over time.

In addition, I found few sociologists published articles on civil war (or war) in political science journals. Even fewer sociologists publish papers in journals specializing in terrorism and/or counterterrorism. There are exceptions: Beck, Cunningham, della Porta, Kurzman, and I are all doing research on terrorist violence and most of us take a social movement approach. But, as my findings suggest, the field of sociology is increasingly moving away from these topics.

This was not always the case. In Coercion, Capital, and European States,[1] Tilly crossed disciplinary boundaries to link processes and mechanisms of state making, state expansion, and claims making to insurrection, civil conflict, and state failure. In my view, sociologists would gain much by returning to this type of elegant analysis in order to untangle the potential causal connections among different forms of insurgencies and state/nation building.

Why do few sociologists study violent conflicts such as terrorism, civil wars, rebellions, and insurgencies compared to political scientists? First, there are organizational characteristics of each discipline that reinforce this trend. Two large subdivisions of political science (comparative politics and international relations) explicitly analyze power relationships among and within states, which leads naturally to studying various challenges to state authority. Sociologists also study power relations among individuals or groups, but across variety of contexts beside collective action (e.g., in gender or family relations). Finally, a large body of work lead by scholars such as Davenport, Hegre, Gleditsch, Figueirdeo, Fearon, Laitin, Reynol–Querol, has explicitly modeled civil war and insurgencies using game theory and rational choice perspectives and/or apply specialized methods for analyzing dyadic interaction between challengers and authorities. With a few notable exceptions, sociologists rarely use these analytic frames and techniques. This limits our ability to engage in a dialogue with this large contingent of scholars who study conflict and contention.

A strategy that integrates disciplinary approaches could shed light on some of the key unresolved puzzles in the study of war and terrorist conflict. First, the vast empirical literature on these topics presents a set of contradictory findings that lack a coherent theoretical base. Tarrow (2007),[2] Fearon & Laitin (2003)[3], Collier and Hoeffler 2004),[4] Lujala, Gleditsch & Gilmore (2005)[5] and Olzak (2006) [6] report different results regarding the impact of poverty and inequality, unemployment, primary commodity exports, and oil sector dominance on the emergence, duration, and ending of civil wars. In my view, the application of social movement theories of solidarity and conflict could identify many of the systematic processes underlying these scattered findings.

A second puzzle emerges from findings showing that ethnic polarization, diversity and/or ethnic-linguistic fractionalization often bear no relationship to the onset, duration, or severity of ethnic civil wars. This seems counterintuitive, but it opens the door for considering the reverse causal process, in which the salience of ethnic boundaries emerges from (rather than causes) ethnic conflict. A related issue I am working on concerns the ideological component of terrorism. Research routinely finds a positive correlation between religious orientations and a group’s use of lethal tactics against civilians, but few theories can fully explain this relationship (but see Berman 2009).[7] This puzzle offers an opportunity for those interested in the intersection of culture, ideology and violence to begin tackling these issues.

Finally, despite the fact that multiple (and excellent) datasets on world-wide conflict events exist (e.g., UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset, MAROB, MAR, AMAR, Correlates of War, Non-State Actors) few researchers have offered a coherent explanation for why it is that the proportion of armed conflicts that are intrastate has risen when compared to the proportion of interstate war. There are few explanations of this shift, despite the fact that theories of globalization in economics and political science and theories of global society in sociology provide some useful guidelines for developing new arguments about factors that activate (and deactivate) different forms of conflict.

For example, in my 2011 Journal of Conflict Resolution paper,[8] I tried to tease out an explanation for different types of civil wars that linked processes associated with globalization through mechanisms of ethnic inequality, competition, and insurgency. Such arguments could easily be extended to understand the conditions under which globalization generates more and less successful terrorist activities.

In sum, I urge sociologists (especially social movement scholars) to consider bringing some coherence to a literature on collective violence that has become fractionalized and segregated by discipline. More cross-fertilization of theoretical frames and analytical techniques across boundaries would be useful in my view.

[5]http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic700752.files/Lujala_et al_Diamond_Curse_Civil_war_JCR_49_2005.pdf
[6]https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=bTs02KUTO2cC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Olzak+2006&ots=i2nl0GPl3L&sig=oOuhIlF6qWOAIrf-mDeFQSthwTo – v=onepage&q=Olzak 2006&f=false
[7]https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=R7jvDS3OiAUC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=Eli+Berman+book&ots=WLUvRvG610&sig=Nz7Vk_DJWnmTEvxxkdgoH9DSB6s – v=onepage&q=Eli Berman book&f=false
[8] http://jcr.sagepub.com/content/55/1/3.short


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